Take the Relativity Test
It is very, very hard to think outside of your own culture. A lot of people today at once fear and embrace relativism, saying that liberal values are at once superior to and embracing of other cultures. And there is almost no more contentious issue in the field of cultural relativism than the question of religion.
Almost everyone in the West thinks of ‘religion’ as, basically, Evangelical Christianity. They think that Muslims see Mohammed the way that Christians see Jesus, and that the Hindu scriptures (go on, try to name them*) work like the Bible. They think that the Qur’an is like the Bible and that meditating is like praying.
When you start to realise that the rest of the world’s religions are nothing like yours, you start thinking about your own very, very differently. It challenges your faith to realise that people think differently about God.
So… what if… everything were different? Here are 5 ideas to challenge a Christian worldview.
*There is no text common to all Hindu groups. Two of the most popular and widely-shared are the ancient Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita.
1. Maybe nominal religion is OK
Nominal religion means ‘being religious in name only‘. In other words, being Christian because your family is Christian, or being Christian because your school was Christian, or being Christian because you were baptised. Some religious groups are defined in these terms, even some Christian groups. The idea that they are not bound together by belief in the same doctrines is shocking to some people, but religion doesn’t have to be defined that way.
Being of a certain religion because of your cultural background is not so uncommon. That includes Americans who are Christian because they are American, English people who are Church of England, Greeks who are Orthodox, Catholics who are Irish, etc…
2. Maybe religious experience doesn’t matter so much
For a start, not all Christians consider being ‘born again’ to be the test of true Christianship. Many Christians today are brought up believing that Catholics are not Christians for this reason. But faith doesn’t have to be based on that kind of conversion experience. The whole of your faith life doesn’t have to hang on ‘letting Jesus into your heart’.
Jews base their religious identity as much on ‘peoplehood’ as on shared religious experiences and, within denominations, on shared styles of worship and ethical codes. Buddhists engage in spiritual training and meditation practices, but also believe that in order to reach Nirvana you must learn not to desire it. Meditation is just one strand of the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment.
The idea that people believe based on their religious experiences is very much an Evangelical one.
3. Maybe religion should be public
Christianity emerged in the West where the separation between Church and State is quite normal. As such, we have drawn very clear lines where religion belongs and where it doesn’t – although there is continued tension about keeping religion out of public spaces. But these notions are thoroughly Christian and are based on the idea that it is faith alone that brings salvation – and salvation of the individual soul is what matters.
Other religions – like Islam – have very different ideals. Salvation does not depend on individual belief but on submission to the Divine, which is best accomplished through community efforts. Visible manifestations of your submission – your Islam – such as ritual prayers or wearing hijab are crucial to being a part of this community.
4. Maybe scripture is secondary
I have often found that even many Christians who claim to base their beliefs solely on the Bible do not really do so. In fact, I would say that Protestant Christianity is probably based at least as much on tradition as Orthodox Judaism.
How do Christians celebrate Christmas?
– Is that in the Bible?
If you have ever been to a Christian wedding, you would probably be under the impression that Christianity thinks very highly of marriage. I would agree and I think this is a wonderful thing. But this isn’t Biblical: St. Paul thought it better not to marry, and saw marriage as a compromise with sexual temptation: “For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:9)
So how do we learn to be Christians? Through Church, and through the Christianity that has been soaked into our culture for the last 2,000 or so years.
5. Maybe we are being left behind
Christians in the ‘global South’ significantly outnumber Christians in the West. Missionaries are being sent to Europe and America from Africa and Korea. The idea that Christianity is Western is simply no longer true.
Figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sunday Adelaja are become increasingly important in global religious affairs, and Western values are being increasingly questioned in global denominations such as the Anglican Communion.
So the idea that Christianity should somehow be controlled by Westerners is at the very least undemocratic. If we are to look for religious innovation in the last 20-30 years, I would suggest that the two biggest things are 1) The rise of the religious right – fundamentalism coming into the political sphere in America, and 2) The massive growth of natively-produced Pentacostalism in South America, Asia and Africa.
Should we challenge our religious ideas? Why/not?
What have you learned from the world’s religions that has challenged your worldview?